REMEMBER THAT COMMERCIAL WITH THE TELE-worker shuffling around in her pajamas and bunny slippers?” asks Lee Smith, a public-relations account executive who works from Portland, Ore., for a firm based in Chicago. “Well, contrary to popular belief, I don’t sit around like that.”
Like most work-at-home employees, Smith struggles against the perception that she has–in the words of a coworker–“a cake position.” When she first began teleworking four years ago after being in-house for six, many of her fellow workers assumed she was slacking off. “One guy said, `Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if we all had the luxury of working at home?’ His words echoed the thoughts of several others outside of my department,” Smith says.
To combat resentment and misconceptions, Smith overdelivered. She worked marathon hours and delivered seven-page status reports. She responded to e-mails within 10 minutes, sent unnecessary e-mails to everybody, and felt guilty about missing a single call.
As Smith learned, dealing with the social aspects of telecommuting can be daunting. Coworkers resent what they imagine is a slice of heaven and try to undermine you. Even managers add to the misconception by forgetting to ask for your input or neglecting to invite you to meetings.
But all is not lost. The teleworkers and experts we interviewed agree that much of the initial resentment between office and home workers dissipates within the first six months. Meanwhile, read on to see how best to handle it.
Understand when your coworkers know why telecommuting is the best way for you to get the job done, they’ll be less resentful. “At first, they said things to me like, `How’s the lady of leisure today?'” says San Jose, Calif.-based Colleen Pizarev, who worked at PR Newswire for three years before becoming a teleworker two years ago.
“They thought I was sleeping late, [lying] around, and watching TV. I explained that to do my job, I had to telecommute.” Pizarev works with bureaus in Europe and Asia, and starts her day at 6 a.m., clocking a few hours and then taking some time off before starting up again at 6 p.m. “Since I had that lull in the afternoon, telecommuting made the most sense. Once people heard that, they accepted it.”
Pizarev further diffused resentment by opening communication with the most vocal dissenters. She was honest about the pros and cons of working at home and admitted to missing everyone. “I continually stressed that it simply made more sense for me to work from home. Once people understood that and learned they could reach me whenever they needed to, there were no more hard feelings.”
Don’t Forget Me
Possibly nothing is more difficult for teleworkers than staying connected, but unless you’re constantly in your coworkers’ thoughts, it’s easy for them to assume you’re slacking off. And once you start getting left out, it can be next to impossible to get back in.
“The most difficult thing when I started teleworking was that people forgot about me,” says Pizarev. “Decisions were made, meetings were held, and I didn’t know what was going on. I had to learn to stay in contact professionally and politically, and it was a huge challenge.” Pizarev believes that the main reasons telework arrangements fail is that such issues aren’t recognized or addressed early on. But how do you remain in the loop on a constant basis?
Jeff Hill, who lives in Orem, Utah, and works for a New York City-based firm, suggests calling people for social chats. “I call it `virtual wandering,'” he says. “Because you’re remote, you have to reach out. In the office, when you’re at a lull, you go to the water cooler. Pick up the phone and ask a coworker about the kids, the latest movies she’s seen, or what’s new in her life.”
Jack Burke, author of the book Creating Customer Connections, suggests establishing daily conversations with your supervisor, especially if you can’t get to the office regularly. He also advises teleworkers to make every effort to attend company functions such as picnics and awards banquets.
Since teleworkers are usually “the last to know” what’s going on in the office, Jennifer Johnson started the Virtual High Five, or VHF. Johnson, president of Johnson & Company, a virtual public relations and marketing agency, institutionalized the importance of complimenting best practices and accomplishments.
“VHF is part of our vernacular,” she says. “The entire company had a virtual baby shower for three pregnant staffers, where we were all on a conference call and listened as the moms-to-be opened gifts.” For Christmas 2012, Johnson bought everyone silk pajamas with the firm’s logo on the pocket. She asked them not to open their gifts until the team conference call. “It sounds simple, but it creates a sense of community.”
Know Yourself/Know Your Coworkers “You must know your personality and style of communicating,” says Orlando, Fla., resident Deb Haggerty, a former telecommuter for AT&T who now counsels others. Her firm, Positive Connections, helps companies and people communicate better and institute human resources departments.
“Be aware of people’s different styles,” she says, “so you’re more precise in your communication. The folks at the office who appear jealous may have different ways of communicating. For example, if you’re at home and use lots of gestures and facial expressions, that won’t come through over the phone. You’ll need to make people understand with only your words. If you’re talking with a detail-oriented person, be concise and precise. Have the data nearby to talk in a way that suits that person’s style.”
For Smith, understanding her coworkers means remembering what it’s like to be in an office. “It’s easy to forget about people just walking in and wanting to talk about the weekend or asking for your opinion. I expect people to call me back immediately, and that doesn’t happen. I remind myself [there are] a lot of interruptions and I need to be patient. There needs to be give and take.”
Get Management Buy-In
Pizarev learned how vital a supportive manager can be. “In meetings, my boss would make sure to bring up my name and keep everyone aware of what I was doing and that I was part of the team. The then-president was also supportive and included me on speakerphone for major meetings.” Pizarev says her company championed her cause, and that went a long way toward reducing resentment.
Sweetening the Pot
In today’s competitive job market, savvy managers know providing better benefits and more options is key to attracting and retaining the best talent. Keeping employees happy isn’t just about a good health and dental plan–what they want is flexibility.
In a poll conducted by RHI Consulting, a company that provides IT professionals on a project basis, 88 percent of managers surveyed said offering a wide range of benefits–flexible hours, personal days, telecommuting, and sabbaticals–was crucial. In addition, those surveyed noted that job sharing has surged in popularity. So what are companies offering? (Survey participants were allowed more than one answer.)
You’re Always on My Mind
The following suggestions are from Siemens Information and Communication Networks Inc., where approximately 25 percent of the 7,000 employees telecommute.
* Use items with the company logo–such as mugs, pencils, and mousepads–to help you feel connected.
* Talk to your peers as often as possible.
* Make sure your colleagues and manager know about important happenings in your life.
* Find ways to be in contact with your colleagues via e-mail.
* Stay in touch with your manager on a regular basis.